This article was updated in November 2023 with contributions by Kav Dadfar, Ana Mireles, and Jaymes Dempsey.
Museums offer incredible opportunities for photography; you can capture paintings, sculptures, educational displays, architecture, people interacting with exhibits, and so much more.
Unfortunately, while museum photography can look great, it’s tough to get right. Due to the large crowds, reflective glass, and low light, it’s easy to come home from a museum with a batch full of blurry, muddy, distraction-filled photos.
So how do you capture amazing photos at museums? Simply follow the nine tips I share below, which explain how to handle crowds, how to keep your shots sharp, how to deal with reflections on the glass, and so much more.
Let’s get started!
1. Check the rules
Before planning a photography trip to a museum, I highly recommend you start by checking the rules. Make sure you’re actually allowed to photograph inside the museum – not all museums are so photography-friendly! – and determine whether photography is off-limits in certain areas.
If photography is banned, you can always try contacting the museum and asking for permission, but don’t be surprised if you get rejected; photography can cause safety issues, and the flash can damage works of art, so museum staff likely won’t be so accommodating.
Note: Even if a museum does allow photography, you may not be allowed to capture commercial photos, and you may also encounter certain equipment restrictions. Tripods, for instance, are a big no-no at many museums, so make sure you read the rules carefully. You don’t want to prepare for a museum shoot, only to arrive and have your tripod confiscated.
Bottom line: Before capturing some museum photos, make sure you know what’s off-limits. The restrictions are created for a reason, so regardless of the situation, never intentionally break rules.
2. Consider what you want to convey
When it comes to museum photography, it’s easy to simply walk on through, point your camera at each exhibit, and press that shutter button. However, most folks will get bored after viewing just a few photos of a museum – so instead of trying to document everything, I encourage you to really think about what you want to convey to the viewer.
For instance, do you want to emphasize the movement and engagement that occurs inside a museum? Then use a wide-angle lens to capture the main hall with all of its hustle and bustle. Do you want to impress the viewer with the intricate details of a single artifact? Then get up close and exclude all other objects from the frame.
Every museum is different, and thinking about its key attributes can help you decide what you want to highlight. You might also consider researching the museum in advance; look to understand the architecture, the exhibits, and the overall feeling of the place, then hone in on what interests you most.
That way, instead of producing hundreds of lackluster documentary-type shots, you can come away with two or three key images that really showcase the venue and its exhibits in your own unique style.
3. Don’t forget about the building!
Museums are teeming with incredible works of art, historical pieces, and/or flashy exhibits – so it’s easy to forget that they are often housed in some of the most amazing buildings in the world. Think of the Louvre in Paris, the Natural History Museum in London, or the Guggenheim in New York, and you’ll know what I mean.
In my view, the buildings are as much a part of the experience as the attractions inside, so you should absolutely spend some time exploring the museum architecture in addition to the artifacts and exhibits. I’d recommend doing a little research on the building before you go; that way, you can note any specific elements of cultural or historical importance. These small details are often missed by people (and photographers!) who focus on the main attractions, so by seeking them out, you can capture some uniquely powerful shots.
Make sure to photograph both the museum’s interior and exterior. When working indoors, pay attention to ceilings, columns, and doorways, all of which can make for beautiful images. And when you’re photographing outdoors, try to work during the early morning or late evening, when the light is soft and golden.
You can also try photographing the museum facade after dark, which will give you the opportunity to combine a moody atmosphere with beautiful artificial lighting:
4. Take steps to eliminate reflections
Have you ever tried to photograph a museum display that’s behind glass? It’s tough. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with reflections in your final shot, and while you can reduce these in post-processing, it’s much better to get it right in the field.
So what do you do?
First, turn off your flash. Otherwise, it’ll bounce off the glass and create an unpleasant white glow somewhere in the image.
Next, make sure you’re using a lens hood. A rubber hood is best, though you can make do with a plastic hood, too (and in a pinch, you can simply drape a coat over the front of your lens).
Finally, move your lens as close to the glass as possible. You’ll want to keep your front lens element parallel to the display, and you’ll want to keep any gap between the lens and the glass covered by the lens hood.
If you follow each of the above steps, you’ll eliminate most (or even all) reflections, and you’ll end up with images like this one here (yes, it was shot through the glass!):
5. Adjust your settings or stabilize your camera
Museum exhibits are sometimes kept dark for added ambiance or for purposes of preservation, and even when exhibits are fully lit, the artificial lighting often isn’t much compared to outdoor lighting. As a result, your museum photography will turn out unpleasantly underexposed or extremely blurry – unless you change your camera settings to compensate for the low light.
Specifically, you’ll want to switch your camera to Aperture Priority or Manual mode, then boost your ISO until you can keep your shutter speed at 1/80s or above. Yes, a high ISO will increase image noise, but most modern cameras can go up to ISO 800, ISO 1600, and beyond without significant reduction in image quality, so as long as you only raise your ISO as necessary, you should be okay. (Also, it’s better to capture a noisy image than a blurry one!)
As I noted above, you’ll want to keep your shutter speed at 1/80s or above – otherwise, your images will likely turn out consistently soft – but you’ll need to take steps to keep your body stabilized. While 1/80s is fast enough for sharp handholding when using a wider lens, it’s important to use proper technique (hold in your elbows, cup your lens with one hand, keep your camera close to your face, etc.).
That said, if the museum does allow tripods, then I encourage you to use one! You can also try resting your camera on a table or a bench, which is another great way to capture sharp shots while using ultra-low shutter speeds.
6. Try to get creative
Museums aren’t exactly new, and museum photography has been going on for decades – so it’s your job, as a photographer, to showcase what people have seen and captured a thousand times from a new perspective.
How can you do this? I’d start by adjusting your viewpoint. See if you can photograph an exhibit or hall from high up (by shooting from a balcony) or from low down (by kneeling down and shooting upward with a wide-angle lens).
I’d also encourage you to look for the little details: shadows, reflections, and even moments of interaction between the visitors and the artifacts. Small details often go unnoticed, yet they can be full of meaning and beauty.
Finally, you can try out various creative techniques. If tripods are allowed in the building, try to capture a long-exposure photo that hints at the movement of the museum’s visitors. If the museum is full of artifacts, try to use shooting-through composition techniques (where you position an out-of-focus element in the image foreground) to give the viewer a sense of immersion within the scene. Make sense?
7. Choose your composition carefully
When photographing art or an artifact in a museum, don’t try to just reproduce it; if all you want is a record shot, it’s generally just better to buy the postcard or the catalog.
Instead, think about what the piece is transmitting to you. Consider going wide: show the architecture of the gallery, make it interact with the other pieces of the exhibition, and try to capture the ambiance.
In other words, make it your own. Notice how in this next example, I didn’t photograph any specific artwork, just the space and the atmosphere:
8. Avoid crowds with research and patience
As any museum photographer knows, one of the main issues when capturing images of exhibits and halls is the crowds.
After all, museums are designed as tourist destinations, and as such, they’re often very busy. Try to capture a photo of a famous sculpture, and you’ll generally end up with dozens of people fragmented throughout the frame.
Fortunately, I have a few handy tips to prevent crowds from encroaching on your shots:
First, head to the museum on days and times when things are quieter. If you attend during the week and take care to avoid school vacations, you can often avoid visitors. And if you come early in the morning, you may get whole rooms to yourself! You might also try heading to the museum between around 11 and 2, as many tour groups eat lunch during these times. (Locals can sometimes offer this kind of insight.)
Second, spend some time photographing the less-popular portions of the museum – the back rooms, the permanent third-floor exhibits, etc. These areas are often quieter, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less worthy of photos!
Third, if you find an area you desperately want to photograph but you can’t seem to shake the tourists, just take a breath. Even in the busiest of venues, if you wait long enough, you’ll eventually find a gap in the flow of traffic. You’ll ultimately capture the shot you want, but you’ll need to give yourself plenty of time; patience is key!
Fourth, don’t be afraid to include people in your photo. Just be sure to wait until the right moment so that they complement your image!
9. Keep copyright considerations in mind
Last but not least, there is something that you won’t see on the museum signs, but it exists and it’s very important: the issue of copyright.
While getting inspiration from others is great, remember that you are photographing the work of a fellow artist, so it is covered by copyright. This can apply to artwork being exhibited as well as to the architecture of the museum, so it can be a very complicated issue to understand.
I encourage you to inform yourself in greater depth. A general rule of thumb is that you can’t use an image for commercial purposes without permission from the creator. And if you’re using the image for educational purposes, you should always give credit to the creator. Let’s be respectful of one another!
Museum photography tips: final words
Museums are often beautiful and are certainly key sights in most areas, so they should be on every photographer’s shot list.
And while museum photography can be tough for beginners, just remember the tips I’ve shared, approach each new museum carefully, and stay creative. You’re bound to capture some amazing photos!
Now over to you:
What museums do you plan to photograph? Which of these tips will you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below!